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The debate over the cleanup of the toxic Wingate landfill in a predominantly black Fort Lauderdale, Fla., neighborhood may now be joined by a group of attorneys led by Jan Schlichtmann, the lawyer made famous by the movie “A Civil Action.” Schlichtmann and five other attorneys plan to meet tonight with Wingate area residents who claim the landfill has caused heightened infant mortality and cancer rates in their neighborhood. The lawyers would like to form a community coalition to lobby for a cleanup of the landfill, push the alleged polluters and the city to pay compensation and, possibly, ask for some residents to be relocated. There are no immediate plans to file a lawsuit, Schlichtmann said. The coalition intends to talk with city officials and the alleged polluters before considering legal action. The 65-acre city-owned Wingate landfill, which served as a dump for 24 years, was closed in 1978. It also housed an incinerator. Residents living near the landfill have long contended that toxins have leached into the ground, contaminating the soil and ground water. They also claim the incinerator released dangerous toxins into the air while in operation. The city, state and federal government and various companies recently executed a clean-up plan that included soil removal and a capping of the contaminated area. Those remedies, however, have been criticized by area residents and Legal Aid attorneys as ineffective and inadequate. Calls placed to Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle and City Manager Floyd Johnson were not returned. Previously, a federal lawsuit was brought by two Wingate tenant associations against the Environmental Protection Agency and the city, alleging racial discrimination in the remediation plans. They claim the clean-up plan is inadequate and nothing more than a continuation of the previous segregation-era policy of dumping in a black neighborhood. The case, which is pending before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, also claims that the current remediation plan leaves Wingate area residents “exposed to further arsenic and dioxin contamination.” The lawsuit, filed by Sharon S. Bourassa of Legal Aid Service of Broward County, Fla., seeks to get the government agencies to do more. Schlichtmann’s efforts target the 38 alleged corporate polluters and the city regarding damages to area residents. The companies, which all contributed money toward the cleanup effort, include Florida Power & Light Co. and Sears Roebuck and Co. Calls to those companies were not returned. Schlichtmann and the five other attorneys will seek an all-encompassing environmental solution through their newly formed law firm, the Environmental Justice Project. The model that the EJP intends to follow is what attorney J.B. Harris called a “nonpunitive approach.” Instead, according to Schlichtmann, once local residents form one organized coalition, the lawyers and group will then go to government and corporate leaders who residents claim have had a hand in the Wingate dumping in an effort to find solutions and get residents compensation. Schlichtmann contends that government and corporate polluters are often willing to cooperate in an effort to find a solution when they do not have the threat of a lawsuit. The attorneys would get a piece of any settlements. In order to encourage information sharing and cooperation, Schlichtmann said that the attorneys are willing to agree not to file lawsuits. “Magic can happen when you pool resources. Legal, scientific, government, business all coming together,” said Schlichtmann. Harris, a Miami solo practitioner who organized the team of lawyers and recruited Schlichtmann, said Bourassa will be “crucial” for the new effort to be successful. She is helping the EJP attorneys, although she is not part of the law firm. She has been involved in the Wingate case for eight years and is intimately familiar with the details of the Wingate landfill legacy. In 1990, the landfill was declared a Superfund site by the EPA. The Superfund program, which was established by Congress in 1980, attempts to locate, investigate and clean up the worst cases of chemical dumping in the United States. But the attorneys insist little has changed since 1990, when a state Health Department study found the Wingate neighborhood had the highest cancer rate in Florida. The attorneys are still trying to get more recent data on cancer rates. Last year, Harris said, a study by the Healthy Mothers-Healthy Babies Coalition of Broward County found 56 cases of fetal and infant mortality in the two ZIP codes nearest the Wingate landfill. Countywide there were just four other cases of infant mortality — cases where infants die before turning 1 year old — compared with the 29 found in the Wingate area. “The Wingate area has some of the highest rates of cancer in the state and some of the highest rates of fetal and infant death,” said Schlichtmann, who is a solo practitioner in Beverly, Mass., and of counsel with Pensacola, Fla.-based firm Leven Papantonio Thomas Mitchell Echsner & Proctor. “This is an environmental injustice; never have I heard such a large-scale story. We want to put together the resources to answer the questions.” Schlichtmann was made famous by the movie “A Civil Action” and by the book by the same name, written by Jonathan Harr. John Travolta played Schlichtmann in the account of his lawsuit filed on behalf of several families whose children died of leukemia in the Boston suburb of Woburn. Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace, which operated manufacturing plants near the neighborhood, were accused of dumping dangerous pollutants that caused the leukemia. At the liability stage, Beatrice won, and W.R. Grace settled for $8 million. In the Wingate case, the team of six lawyers formed the Environmental Justice Project. It will be based in Miami. The other attorneys involved are: Grover G. Hankins, a former general counsel to the NAACP, who served in the Justice Department and now has his own firm in Houston, which is active in several toxic tort cases across the country; Miami attorney R.W. “Buddy” Payne, Johnny L. McCray Jr. in Fort Lauderdale and Edward Montoya in Miami. According to Harris, the attorneys have contributed “several hundred thousand dollars” as seed money to begin the project. He said each attorney has contributed about $50,000. In addition to the new law firm, the lawyers intend to form a nonprofit community coalition made up of Wingate area residents named TOXIC, or “Team Of Exposed Individuals to Contaminants.” In practice, TOXIC will hire EJP as its attorneys. But whether this new effort aimed at resolving the Wingate cleanup succeeds depends on whether the community can come together, said Schlichtmann. In effect, much depends on how many people show up Wednesday night. “It all depends on how serious the community is,” said Schlichtmann, who, since the case from “A Civil Action,” has been involved in high-profile toxic tort cases in Toms River, N.J., and Anniston, Ala. “If the community can come together and speak with one voice, then we can accomplish great things.” Schlichtmann declined to give a particular of number of residents he thinks must join the coalition in order for it to work. “We are absolutely incredibly excited about this,” said Leola McCoy, a Wingate-area resident who has been trying to organize efforts for years to address the toxic dumping.

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